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U.S. Department of Health and Health Services
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Health Literacy Online: A Guide to Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use Health Web Sites
Learn About Your Users and Their Goals

The Basics

The key to creating good Web content is to understand your intended users and to design information based on their specific wants and needs. The goals are to:

  • Write health content your users need in words they understand.7
  • Organize the content so that it's easy to find.

Before you design your site, think about the content you will provide and how it will be used.

Research shows that targeted health information gets users’ attention and promotes learning.32 For example, information can be targeted to users’ age, sex, culture, health status, motivation, or readiness to change.

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1.1. Identify your users. Who are they?

Are they looking for health information for themselves or someone else?

Many users with limited literacy skills are searching for health information for a family member or friend. As a result, they often prefer to print or e-mail the information they find online.16,33,34

  • Consider including health content targeted to caregivers and family members.

What are the social and cultural characteristics of your intended users that might influence how they perform on the site?13 (Consider age, education, economic status, and experience with the Internet.)

What are the technological characteristics that influence how users perform on the site? (Do they have broadband access? Do they have a home computer?)

  • If Web users don't have broadband access, graphics and other features will take a long time to load.
  • Many users with limited literacy skills access the Internet at the house of a friend or family member. Some go online at a public library or community center. This may affect the type of health information they search for, the length of time they spend searching, and the degree of personal health information they provide.5,34

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1.2. Understand their motivations. Why are they here?

Motivation drives the search for health information and influences users' performance on a Web site.32,33 Understanding users' motivations will help you target health promotion content to meet their information needs and expectations.


ODPHP's research identified the following motivations for online health information seeking:

  • Those seeking information about a health problem affecting them or someone they know
  • Those seeking to find out whether they have a health problem or reason to be concerned
  • Those seeking information on how to prevent the onset of health problems32,33

Studies found that users' motivations tend to shift, often frequently.7 In response, target content to multiple motivations for seeking health information.

The formula below was developed based on the motivations identified in the previous example. It's designed to move users from "I want some information about a topic" to "I want to do something about it."

Try it icon

Follow this proven formula for presenting health promotion information:

  • Describe the health behavior.
  • Describe the benefits of taking action.
  • Provide specific action steps.

(For more information, see Section 2.)

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1.3. Understand their goals. What are they trying to do?

Most Web users have a specific goal in mind. Typically, they are trying to answer a question.4,7,12 Ask your users what they want to know. Then decide how to give them that information.

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Iterative Design Methods and Tips


  • Individual interviews
  • Focus groups
  • A task analysis
  • Personas and scenarios

Tips for designing and testing your Web site with users

  • In this early phase of iterative design, use focus groups and interviews to talk to people who might use your Web site. Consider interviewing intermediaries who work with Web users with limited literacy skills. These could include public librarians, health care providers, and adult educators. Find out how your Web site could help them serve their clients better.
  • Once you've observed and interviewed potential users, create user personas and scenarios. Use these to guide you through the next phase of content development.
  • If you are revising an existing Web site, start with a usability test. Collect benchmark data on how long it takes people to find the information they need. After you revise the site, repeat the test to see whether you have successfully improved usability.
Icon for usability guidelines.

Refer to Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines (PDF, 20.64 MB) sections:

1:2, 1:3, 1:4, 1:6, 1:7, 1:11

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